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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU professor finds businesses may influence employee ethics

Many business owners and managers worry about employee ethics, especially in light of recent technological advancements. Employers can ease their worry by developing a code of ethics and informing their employees of the consequences of unacceptable behavior, says Jennifer Kreie, an assistant professor of accounting and business computer systems in New Mexico State University's College of Business.

With colleague Tim Cronan of the University of Arkansas, Kreie is researching ethical decision-making in the technologically advanced workplace. To learn more about what factors influence ethical decisions, they surveyed more than 600 business students to find out how they would respond to different situations, Kreie said.

Kreie and Cronan presented five scenarios in which information systems personnel made decisions in questionable ethical situations. For example, said Kreie, in one scenario a person receives software ordered from a catalog. Included was another software package sent in error, which was not listed on the invoice. The person decides to keep the software and use it without paying for it.

The researchers asked the students not only whether the decisions were ethical, but also what was the importance of the issue involved, how probable was it the students would do the same, what factors would influence their decision, and what was the likelihood someone still would make the same decision if there were a stated company policy against such behavior.

They discovered it might be possible for companies to influence their employees' decisions, especially when the issue involved was not perceived as very important, Kreie said. She said the importance of the issue "hits the core belief of what you think is right or wrong."

The results of their research, recently published in the journal of the Association of Computing Machinery, showed women were more conservative in their beliefs. Kreie said more women rated behaviors as unacceptable and fewer women stated they would make the same decision. For example, in the scenario about keeping the inadvertently shipped software program, about 10 percent more women than men said the behavior was unethical. Almost 20 percent more men said they would probably do the same.

Kreie said men relied more on their personal values and whether an activity was legal to determine the acceptability of a behavior. While women trusted those factors, they relied on more factors overall to make their decisions, she said, including what others would do and what the company would say. Both genders, however, said they would be influenced if they knew the repercussions of their behavior.

"We had several participants say they would do something if they thought they wouldn't get caught," Kreie said. "Businesses need to set the rules and make employees aware of the consequences."

It is important that companies not only set guidelines, but also make certain the employees know they exist, Kreie said. Larger businesses might consider a formal training session to discuss the policies, she suggested, while smaller companies might benefit more from departmental discussions using scenarios tailored to their workplace as starting points for discussion.

That is how Kreie presents the topic to her students, using the classroom as a forum for ethical discussions and debate. "You don't tell them what is right or wrong," she said. "You get them to discuss it and stretch their thinking."